Memphis 13 member reflects on school desegregation 50 years later

Memphis 13 member reflects on school desegregation 50 years later

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Decades ago, a young group of students did not know they were making history as they paved the way for desegregation in Memphis schools.

Known as the Civil Rights Movement's "pint-sized pioneers," 13 African American children in Memphis made history segregating schools Bruce, Rozelle, Springdale, and Gordon Elementary in 1961.

Leandrew Wiggins was a 5-year-old boy living in South Memphis and didn't fully understand the moment.

"We were told by our parents that doing this would possibly make things better for people that look like us," Wiggins said.

Wiggins' story is also a part of WMC's Jerica Phillips' family history. Wiggins' mother and Jerica's father's mother are sisters.

"The first day we went, there were hundreds of police around the schools and as many protesters who did not want us at their schools," Wiggins said.

Wiggins remembers feeling rejected but said he'll never forget the words of the police commissioner at that time.

"He told his officers the night before we were to go to school that 'If you cannot protect these negra children then turn in your badge tonight,'" Wiggins recalled.

Wiggins said even with police escorts, the hatred and taunting became unbearable and his mother withdrew him from Rozelle.

In 2016, historic markers were put up at each of the four schools to commemorate those 13 brave first graders who paved the way. Pastor LaSimba Gray and the late Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles initiated funding and efforts to put up the signs.

Wiggins said the next generation must find time to learn their history.

"We've come a long ways but [have] yet a long ways to go, but education is the most important thing to have," Wiggins said. "That's one thing that cannot be taken away."

Watch the full Memphis 13 documentary funded by the University of Memphis and National Civil Rights Museum at thememphis13.com.

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